Any day now, if all goes according to plan, a bill that will actually do something about global warming will come up in the United States Senate.
Come up, and go right down.
Not even the bill’s sponsors, Republican John
McCain of Arizona and Democrat Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut,
predict passage. Their goal is to get more votes than they got last
year. That means they’d be satisfied with 45 votes, delighted
with 46 or 47.
None of those are winning numbers.
Not that winning in the Senate would do much good,
because the House version of the bill, with similar bipartisan
sponsorship from Republican Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland and
Democrat John W. Olver of Massachusetts, will not get to the floor.
The House has a slightly larger Republican majority, a less
collegial culture, and rules granting its leadership greater
supremacy. To persuade Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader
Tom DeLay to bring the bill up for a vote would require far more
political pressure than now exists.
On one level, then,
the perceptive observer might conclude that government is not about
to do anything at all to diminish climate-changing greenhouse
gases, or even the rate by which they increase. Not so. Or at
least, not exactly so.
Congress will do nothing for the
nonce. But there is also an administration, and it would be a
slight exaggeration to say that the administration is doing nothing
at all. Precious little? Yes. As little as possible? Perhaps. But
not nothing at all.
The Bush administration has generally
favored the "Jumbo" approach to the issue. Jumbo
was a 1962 movie starring Doris Day, amusing but forgettable,
except for the moment when Jimmy Durante is trying to sneak a large
elephant away from a police raid on the circus, only to be spotted
by a cop who shouts, "Hey, you! Where are you going with that
elephant?" Durante, in his battered fedora and shloompy suitcoat,
standing right in front of the immense pachyderm named Jumbo, turns
to the cop and in his gravelly voice, replies, "What elephant?"
Or, as the administration might phrase it, what global
warming? One of Bush’s first acts as president was to abandon
U.S. participation in the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Last
year, after the Environmental Protection Agency concurred with the
scientific consensus that the world is getting warmer, and that
most of the warming is "attributable" to human activities, the
White House meddled with the agency’s work so much that
then-EPA administrator Christine Whitman just scrapped the entire
global warming chapter of a regularly scheduled environmental
But the administration has only taken the Jumbo
strategy so far. The EPA was not ordered to delete the global
warming evidence from its Web page, and the agency plans to revisit
the subject, perhaps with more vigor, in its 2006 Report on the
Environment. The administration has never withdrawn its endorsement
of the State Department’s Climate Action Report to the United
Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2002, nor has it
backed away from President Bush’s 2002 pledge that he was
"committed to a leadership role on the issue of climate change." It
is also supporting research to develop hydrogen-powered automobiles
and to find a way to gasify coal and bury the carbon deep in the
So unlike some of the right-wing pseudo
think-tanks or even Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, chairman of the
Committee on Environment and Public Works, the administration does
not deny that global warming is taking place, or that greenhouse
gases are its cause.
But the Bushies do question whether
Jumbo is doing so much damage that he has to be put back in his
cage. The administration still stresses the "uncertainties"
remaining in the scientific evidence, and it declines to endorse
mandatory emission reductions.
Instead, the Energy
Department has put into place a set of voluntary guidelines under
which "utilities, manufacturers, landowners and citizens, will be
able to register their greenhouse gas emissions reductions." An
analysis of the voluntary plan by the Natural Resources Defense
Council, an environmental group known for its prudent research,
concludes that even if it works, the plan would allow greenhouse
emissions to grow as fast as they did in the 1990s.
administration also refuses to consider carbon dioxide a pollutant,
arguing that the Clean Air Act does not so designate it. They are
right: It does not. But the act does include a general definition
noting that anything that gets into the air and damages "health and
welfare," which could include altering the climate, may be
considered a pollutant.
So, if the administration wanted
to define carbon dioxide as a pollutant, it probably could. During
the Clinton administration, EPA lawyers concluded that their agency
had the power to regulate carbon dioxide. But, having made that
claim, the agency never acted on it.
prudence might give pause to partisans who argue that a President
John Kerry and a Democratic Congress would inevitably lead to
stronger emission controls. Had all the Democrats voted for
McCain-Lieberman last year, it would have passed. Seven, including
Montana’s Max Baucus, and Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad of
North Dakota, voted against it.
McCain and Lieberman plan
to keep bringing up their bill. McCain, especially, has a track
record here. He started trying to pass a campaign finance bill in
the mid-1990s. He succeeded in 2002. He is nothing if not
tenacious. One does not survive years in a North Vietnamese prison
camp without that trait.
Furthermore, the government in
Washington is not the only one we have. There’s one in
Albany, another in Hartford, and three — Olympia, Salem and
Sacramento — on the West Coast. In all of these statehouses,
governors — some of them Republicans — are taking the
lead in trying to reduce emissions in their states and regions.
Republican Gov. George Pataki of New York has even proposed a plan
similar to McCain and Lieberman’s.
the Republican on the other side of the country who could do more
than anyone to reduce emissions — and befuddle the president
Arnold Schwarzenegger is backing California
regulators who say they will press ahead with plans to cut
greenhouse gas emissions by 29.2 percent by 2015. Several other
states, including New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, already
follow California’s lead on auto emissions. Others may join
Still, the legalities of this approach are complex
— states may regulate emissions, but not fuel economy —
and the auto industry could sue California. So might the
administration, but here the politics are complex, too. Most
Americans, according to a recent Zogby poll, think global warming
is a problem now, or will be soon. Most of them want the government
to set standards to control emissions rather than relying on
President Bush’s job approval
numbers are dismal. Schwarzenegger’s are boffo. It would be
awkward for the leader of the party espousing "devolution" of power
to the states to sue a popular governor of his own party
who’s on the popular side of an issue.
after all, could have picked up Jumbo and carried him away from the
circus, all by himself.